Searching for meaning in Westfield

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Post by Max Mulhern

I am not a shopper so PLEASE stop me if you have heard this one before.

Early one Sunday morning I left Manhattan in a bus full of people to visit the Storm King Sculpture Garden. Although the crowd didn’t really have the art lover’s feel to it everyone was cheery, bright and animated despite the weather. Most were consulting some kind of promotional literature. Had I missed the Storm King information booth? The windows of the bus fogged up quickly and vigorous wiping only opened up greyer vistas.

After over an hour of blind travel we pulled into the station and everyone got up to go. I was near the back of the bus. When I got to the exit and peaked outside I saw a village of identical Cape Cod Saltbox houses each one adorned with a colorful gold leafed trimmed sign. How quaint. Is this an installation, I wondered? “Storm King ?  I asked the driver.  “Next stop!” I sat back down, the last passenger left on the bus. Storm King was unforgettable but I had missed a new shopping experience.

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Exterior of Westfield Mall in London.

Fifteen years later I momentarily left London behind me and entered Westfield, the new shopping city within the city designed by an eponymous in house architecture firm  that opened last week. It’s price tag: 1.7 million£ though I was drawn by the sheer size of the edifice that seemed to take hours to pass in a car ( I went by foot).

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Entryway to Westfield

We enter through a street with a world’s fair feel to it. Slick and post modern with no precise identity. The first entrance signaled by a lick of atrium led me into a vast space best defined as cruise liner meets the Moscow underground meets a computer generated neon lit euro-trash night club.

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Cruise ship meets nightclub meets Moscow metro.

Gigantic chandeliers that look like pink and shimmering jellyfish drop down between sinuous and concentric balconies that rise up to the ceiling like smoke rings. We feel like a diver in the purest of waters. We aren’t just shopping, we’re traveling in a new medium and we can breathe the light.

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Chandeliers suggest jellyfish and an underwater playground.

Obviously I didn’t know the meaning of vast for when I ambled back down into the “street” I found another entrance marked “The Village”. “Compounded Space” might have been a better name in this region of space redefined where space is bursting with space.

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Westfield, Gaudi-inspired tubes that suggest Pacific Redwood tree structures

The shopping mall complex was perfected in the USA in the 60’s. The idea was to create an enclosed space where the shopper lost contact with the outside world. This is the same concept employed in casinos. Neither malls nor casinos have windows or clocks.

Westfield breaks this mold somewhat with an undulating near weightless roof of glass and metal frames that are held aloft by Gaudi-inspired Pacific Redwood-scaled tree structures composed of tubes. There are just a few of these unimposing trunks and the roof ripples like a flying carpet that is on the point of gliding away. The effect is stunning precisely because the overall structure and its beautifully scaled monumentality dwarfs both its components and us. We are but grains of sand in the shopping universe.

Antoni Gaudi. Sagrada Familia, Barcelona
Antoni Gaudi. Sagrada Familia, Barcelona

We catch a glimpse of the outside world of light but not of any objects except what can only be an error when at one moment the glass canopy cascades onto an esplanade and in its fall reveals a project tower block.

The world’s fair feeling continues as each luxury stand is housed in a plate glass building within the building. These glass boxes of this “village” (there’s that quaint denomination again trying to give the gargantuan store that small shop feel and meaning) line avenues that nearly stretch beyond the visibility of the naked eye. The rules of perspective diminish the gleam to pinpoints of light on the horizon that look like planets in the daytime sky.

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Kerouac could have written a sequel, In The Mall, and spun his wheels on the marble floors for a time while trying to metabolize all of the merchandise and merchandising. There are islands of refreshment complete with cakes, caviar, and champagne and waiters making sure that everyone can see the champagne flowing. It feels like an airport without the faint whiff of kerosene and the scoreboards of arrivals and departures. That’s because you aren’t coming or going. You’re in a suspended state. There are even control panels with interactive screens for you to plan your stay. How about a flight simulator anyway? Between these islands are way stations for tired the poorer and the caffeine depleted where everyone has got their bulging feet out of their shoes for a stretch.

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Westfield Shopping Mall, London. All photos of Westfield in this post are by Max Mulhern.

Westfield tests the limits of physical fitness. The heat of all the lighting and the dazzle and tinsel of the shop windows combine to make for near survival conditions. It is the anti-Biosphere project creating an unsustainable environment bearing barren fruit. If the commercial venture fails they will be able to open the hallways to cars and convert the stores to apartment blocks.

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Glass ceiling at Westfield, like a magic carpet.

There were no art galleries and I, like a shy single man in a pick-up bar, headed for the bookstore. I suspect that the scale of things might push people to spend if for no other reason than to somehow get a purchase on the place (no pun intended). From inside the top floor of the bookstore I ran my hands over the hi-tech window framing and gazed into the deep pools where humans circled in their feeding/shopping holes like fish. The book in my hand felt strangely light. Were publishers leaving the pages out now to save money? I desperately wanted to throw it out into the mall and count how long it would take to hit the bottom.

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Giovanni Battista Piranesi
Carceri (Prisons) Plate VII the Drawbridge

Ex cathedral I realized that the space would have been fine without any shops. It is an urban geological phenomenon in itself and left empty would have been on par with a Smithson work.  Here the Grand Canyon, meets the Amazon Rain Forest, Donald Trump and Steve Wynne. This is where you’ll find the future Piranesi NEXT YEAR! I’ll let Tyler Brulé fill us in on the service side of the experience.

–Max Mulhern, a Philadelphia area artist, last wrote about the antic paddle adventure in the Thames by Finnish artist Antti Laitinen.

Tags

antoni gaudi, giovanni battista piranesi, max mulhern, westfield

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